Everyone loves the NFL. The individual players? That’s a different story. As with any sports league, fans have choose their heroes and villains.
The biggest takeaway from our annual look at player popularity in the NFL: fans like quarterbacks, low-key pass catchers, and Green Bay Packers. Who they don’t like: quarterbacks, cocky pass catchers, and Dallas Cowboys.
Nielsen recently collaborated on a survey with E-Poll Market Research aimed at finding out which NFL players resonated with fans as appealing, and which didn’t. Players’ appeal numbers were scored based on the percentage of those whose response was to “like” the player or “like him a lot.”
First, a quick look at the top of each list. The most-liked player in the NFL is Troy Polumalu, the crazy haired, high energy defensive back from the Pittsburgh Steelers, whose appeal rating registers at 63%. Not much surprise there - talent, all-out effort and a roster spot on a nationally popular team go a long way with fans. The league’s least-liked player: Detroit Lions’ defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, the second overall pick in 2010 whose early popularity slipped into reverse as he developed a reputation for dirty play. Suh, whose appeal registers at just 19%, was suspended by the league last season for stomping on a Green Bay Packers’ lineman in front of a national TV audience on Thanksgiving Day.
As for pass catchers: fans take a liking to workmanlike receivers Rob Gronkowski (58%) and Donald Driver (57%), but not to perceived divas Randy Moss (24%) and Santonio Homes (28%).
Overall, though, no one dominates NFL fan passion like a quarterback. Five the ten most-liked and seven of the ten least-liked players in the league, the poll shows, are QBs. On the thumbs-up list: Drew Brees (62% appeal), Peyton Manning (59%), Aaron Rodgers (58%), Robert Griffin III (57%) and Matthew Stafford (56%). The overriding theme: success, broken down one of two ways. Brees, Manning, Rodgers are Super Bowl winners, while Griffin and Stafford are young talents who seem to be living up to the draft hype. Griffin, in particular, has quickly broken through with a lot of attention and endorsement spots since joining the Washington Redskins, according to Neilsen’s Senior Vice President for Sports, Stephen Master.
“He plays on a high profile team, with a lot of good high profile rivalries,” Master says of Washington’s perch in the NFC East, from which they play two annual games against the Cowboys, Giants and Eagles (Master notes, incidentally, that Giants' QB Eli Manning and his favorite target, receiver Victor Cruz, are very popular players who just missed the top ten cutoff).
Those quarterback not in the fans’ best graces: Jay Cutler (21% appeal), Michael Vick (23%), Matt Leinart (26%), Kyle Orton (27%), Tony Romo (27%), Mark Sanchez (31%) and Brady Quinn (31%). Call that list fans at their most demanding: Romo, Cutler, Vick, and Sanchez have all enjoyed degrees of success but haven’t joined Brees, Manning, and Rodgers in winning the big one (Vick also has his past legal issues of course). Meantime, Leinart and Quinn, both heralded college quarterbacks from major schools, haven’t joined Stafford or Griffin in living up to the hype.
Finally, there’s the team factor. Three Green Bay Packers - Rodgers, Driver and defensive back Charles Woodson - are among the ten most liked players in the league. The most blatant contrast: not one but two Dallas Cowboys’ quarterbacks, Tony Romo and Kyle Orton, are among the least-liked.
Clearly, the NFL isn’t Major League Baseball, where long term powerhouses are limited to big markets. Despite the Packers’ success - 14 playoff seasons in 19 years, including a Super Bowl title and a 15-1 season in the past two - their small market status and vintage stadium keep them popular with fans. “They aren’t polarizing like the Yankees are in baseball,” says Master. “It’s the Cowboys that are football’s version of the Yankees.”
Romo, a good quarterback who by all accounts has never hurt anyone, and Orton, whose biggest sin was once getting caught on video drinking too much during his Denver days four years ago, can probably attest to that.
Most Liked NFL Players
Most Disliked NFL Players